Japan at a Glance
Working in Japan
Working in Japan may still conjure up images of suit-clad sararīman (white-collar business employees), pressing themselves into Tokyo’s underground during rush hour. Today, the employment market has changed for much of the local population. However, before we can give you an insight to Japan’s business world, we have to briefly mention the current situation in Japan.
The Great East Japan Earthquake
Earthquakes are very common in Japan. Most expats may have encountered one of them while working in Japan. While most earthquakes are comparatively harmless, the great earthquake which shook the ground in March 2011 and resulted in a tsunami on the east coast was a natural disaster.
During the tsunami, the nuclear power plant in Fukushima sustained heavy damage. Different reactors of the power plant failed, releasing a fair amount of radiation. The government eventually declared the area in Fukushima a prohibited zone for all residents.
The Current Economic Climate
Before the natural disaster, working in Japan meant working in a country struggling with problems such as slow economic growth, a decline of the manufacturing sector, low productivity, rising public debt, and an ageing population. By 2025, two employees might have to support one retiree.
The disaster and its aftermath have had an additional impact on the country’s economy. Although the GDP started to rebound in the third quarter of 2011, the nuclear catastrophe led to even higher government debt, as well as problems in the energy sector. In late 2012, the national economy then contracted for the third consecutive quarter, and the country is now going through a mild recession.
Japan’s economic prospects are unclear, and even leading industries such as electronics, energy production, or ICT were at best cautiously optimistic at the time of writing (early 2013).
Any foreign nationals who will be working in Japan (i.e. who do not come for a business trip, to engage in negotiations, etc.) have to apply for a special work visa. For this purpose, they need to obtain a so-called Certificate of Eligibility from the immigration office.
As soon as you have an offer of employment for Japan, an HR staff member of your Japanese employer should submit the application on your behalf. The procedure takes up to three months and needs to be handled before the actual visa application. Without the proper visa, you should never take up paid employment in Japan.
Due to the lack of arable land, there have never been very many opportunities for those working in Japan’s agricultural sector. Except for rice cultivation and fishing, agriculture is rather negligible.
The manufacturing sector is both advanced and diversified. Japan exports various industrial ingredients and high-tech products, especially to East Asian countries and the US. This has traditionally been a source of pride to the many laborers working in Japan’s post-war manufacturing industries. However, this sector is suffering from fierce competition from emerging markets, the present energy shortage, and general globalization in the Asia-Pacific region.
Above all, working in Japan is characterized by its status as a service economy. About 70% of the workforce are employed in service-related industries, from banking and finance over real estate and insurance to retail and telecommunications.
Requirements for Expatriates
You should bring necessary qualifications, hard skills, and experience for specialist positions. Most expats hold a diplomatic post, a career as a foreign correspondent, or part of an intra-company transfer.
Skilled expatriates may be hired as experts in the automotive sector, the construction industry, environmental or medical technology, B2B salespersons for industrial products, or technical translators. Other traditional fields of employment for qualified staff, like IT or electronics, are currently on somewhat shaky ground, but they might still be worth a try.
The Job Search
It can be helpful to begin your career in Japan by applying to the local overseas branch of a sōgōshōsha (Japan’s large trading companies) in your home country. If you’d like to start working in Japan, you should not underestimate the importance of a local business network.
Your contacts may help you by letting you know about vacancies that haven’t been openly advertised or by recommending prospective employers. Last but not least, a solid grasp of business Japanese is an invaluable asset for working in Japan.